Monday, July 31, 2006

Look Guys, They Named a Boat for Us

I sort of expected our Glimmerglass weekend to be a sort of mid-afternoon snack; something low carb and possibly bland to appease the operappetite between Tanglewood/Caramoor and the start of the new Met season. It was not so.

I am going to let Alex's assessment of The Greater Good be the Wellsung party line. I will throw in that even in the less-horribly-conceived-than-the-rest first 30 minutes or so, I still found it basically lame and cutesy (vocal lines such as: "I'm c-c-c-cooooold. N-never been so c-c-c-coooold", etc).

The pinnacle of this opera's depserate pandering for some connection with its audience comes near the end, when, in an oh so selfless act of sexual martyrdom, Boule de Suif, the afternoon's "Whore With a Heart of Gold" has sex with a hot German soldier. The poor darling.What happens is this:

While they have sex, the violin section mimics the sound of a mattress squeaking. This goes on for three full scenes. The lights go down, the lights come up. Someone comments on how long they have been having sex. Everyone giggles. The lights go down. The lights come on. Someone ELSE comments on how long ty have been having sex...etc etc. All the while, the poor violin section is making the stupid bed squeak sound.

Ok, no more to say about that--on to the real centerpiece of the weekend.

Don't ask me what my top five favorite operas are, it will make me panic. I will tell you, that as that sort of list changes and fluctuates, Jenufa always remains damn close to the top. So, as Alex pointed out--in any successful production of this piece, the biggesst accolades really must go to Janacek. This idea is helpful to me as I really try to zoom in on what makes me love opera--for me it is always going to be more about the piece itself, with the hopes that a given execution of the piece will bring it to life in a way that does it justice. I guess this speaks to why I can't really roll with the Bel Canto. It's music that, to my ears, has little reason to exist without a vocal acrobat to dazzle us with runs and high notes. I find myself, at times, listening to Bellini or Rossini and wanting to scream: "Just sing some fucking scales and be done with it!!"

I guess this is why, as my tastes slowly develop, I find myself leaving heavily toward the Germans--specifically Wagner and Strauss (big surprise, I know). I can listen to a dozen Salomes at this point and discover something new about the piece every time. And with every listen, I feel more strongly that the music and text are perfectly wed and truly inform each other--as opposed to listening to a dozen recordings of, say, I Puritani, where there is some fun in listening to how a given singer can survive a given passage, but little to be gleaned from the piece itself.

All of these are broad generalizations and are really truly only about my personal tastes. Alex and I just listened to so damn much Strauss and Wagner in the car to Glimmerglass, that after two Caramoor Bel Canto extravaganzas, I have this sort of thing on the brain.
br> There is a point here: Jenufa, to me, falls firmly in the category of pieces that stands on their own merits--and that when it is brought to life with artists who understand its sublimity, we are fortunate to be there to witness it. As one of my truly favorite operas, and as it was my first time hearing it live, I was beyond thrilled with what I heard aznd saw Saturday night.

Jonathan Miller's understated new production basically leaves the opera alone. It plucks it from a rural Czech village and sets it in the rural U.S.--tho the precise time period was unclear. As Alex said brilliantly: "It was basically a way for them not to do the whole thing in Czeck peasant outfits". Exactly. The production was unobtrusive and nice to look at.

Maria Kanyova sings a sensitive, vocally confident Jenufa. I heard her earlier this year in Chicago Opera Theater's Nixon in China. Her Pat Nixon was perhaps even a bit more brushed up at that point than her Jenufa--but in Chicago we saw the final performance, and here we saw the first. Kanyova's voice has the power it needs for a small, acoustically helpful house like Glimmerglass--but I imagine it could get lost in a bigger setting. She made legitimate acting choices which completed the package.

Roger Honeywell and Scott Piper, as Laca and Steva, respectively, both gave vocally strong performaznces. Honeywell was the more impressive of the two. Once he it his stride somewhere around mid-act one, he brought real guts and drama right up until the end. Laca, in the end, is the meatier of th two roles.

The real star of the evening was Elizabeth Byrne and her impeccably sung, totally terrifying Kostelnicka. It was pretty intense in that little house hearing a woman who still sings Brunnhildes (yes, that's her) sing Kostelnicka. She struck the balance between being totally over the top and intense and actually SINGING the role, which was refreshing. Maybe I will cover my ears and imagine her ballsy voice this winter while trying to listen to Anja Silja bark her way through it.

The orchestra, under the seemingly capable baton of Stewart Robinson, held it together for the most part but was never wildly impressive. I get the sense the Glimmerglass orchestra is not the company's strongest feature--but perfectly adequate. No complaints.

In the end, it is Janacek who takes the evening. We were a lucky audience to hear this brilliant piece with an ensemble of intelligent artists. Hopefully the Jenufa momentum will keep trucking. If the audiences in New York and DC in the coming season respond in kind with the audience up in Cooperstown Saturday night...I imagine its place in the rep will only become more prominent.


Maury D'annato said...

That's not Elizabeth Byrne--that's a very large Baked Alaska.

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